Archive for September, 2007

Inquiring Reader,

As you know, I have been reading Lori Smith’s book, Following Jane Austen: A Journey of Adventure, Love, and Faith, with great interest. Two reviews already sit in my archives, and a third one is coming. Each review reflects my thoughts on the three sections in which the book is divided. Lori kindly agreed to be interviewed as well, answering my ten questions with such speed that I am able to post them just as her book becomes publicly available!

1. You wrote so much about your life, intertwining it with Jane’s in the book. How close did you feel to Jane during your journey? Care to share a special memory that was not included in the book?
I felt so close to Jane during the trip. I felt a kinship with her already, which made me want to go, but to be studying her life and following in her footsteps, to be where she lived and walked and prayed — it was wonderful. I think I included pretty much everything in the book! But one of my favorite days was walking in the fields around Steventon, nearly getting lost, knowing that things must look something like they did when Jane was there, and then finally (because Phil and Sue Howe of Hidden Britain Tours helped me) being able to get to see the inside of Steventon church.
2. I believe you mentioned discovering Jane Austen in college. Which of her novels are your favorites, and why?

I love Pride and Prejudice — the first one I read. (Doesn’t everyone??) But Persuasion is also a favorite. I love Anne, and it’s a quieter and more reflective story, coming from an older Austen. Actually, depending on the day you ask me, my favorite changes.

3. Writing is a tough profession and not for the faint-hearted. What made you go for the “gusto” and pursue a career in this field?

I had been freelancing on the side for about five years, and had published one book (The Single Truth). I was traveling to do some speaking in support of that, and had tons of writing ideas I wanted to pursue. Eventually it got to the point that I couldn’t continue to work all day and write at night and on the weekends — I just didn’t have the energy. So I decided to go for it, for at least a year. (Being miserable in my job probably helped tip the scales.) That was two and a half years ago. Financially, it’s incredibly difficult, and I kind of wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I love it, though, and it was one of those things I knew I had to try.

4. It isn’t easy to just get up and go on a long journey. You mentioned a period of transition in your life, including questioning where you were heading spiritually and quitting your job. Did you feel a sense of adventure as you embarked on this quest? Or were you afraid, and had no choice but to forge on?
It was all those things. I was terrified and thrilled. I could easily have not done it, have decided it was too much to attempt, but I hate to think of my fears holding me back, so I went. I had been struggling with depression, and I think in some ways that helped to push me. I wanted to reinvent things and forge a new life — begin to live again. In terms of adventures, this one was fairly tame, but for me it required some bravery and a willingness to push myself a bit outside my comfort zone.

5. You spoke about taking along a backpack. Did this include a laptop, or did you jot down notes? How did you schedule a typical “workday?” Did you email back chapters for someone to proof read as you went along? Or did you write down your recollections after you returned?

I expected to have time to write on the trip, but didn’t really. If I had it to do over again, I might make the trip a bit longer so I could write more, but money was tight, and a month felt extravagant already. I took a notebook with me and wrote detailed notes about every day–on the train, in the evenings, over tea. (It’s now one of my most treasured possessions!) I had a little word processor, and did some writing on that, but not too much. Some of this writing made it almost directly into the book, but most of it was unpublishable — a simple record of what happened and what I was feeling.

Actually, the reason I kept such detailed notes was because of a rejection I’d recently received from The Washington Post Magazine. I was doing a piece for them about a beach trip, but because I hadn’t kept a journal, it didn’t have enough emotional immediacy. The editor was kind enough to give me that feedback (often a rejection letter offers no explanations), so I decided on this trip I needed to keep a notebook and keep track of things. I wish I could thank that editor in person! (She’s since moved on, I’m not sure where.) Without that rejection, I’m not sure this book would ever have come to be.

6. Which came first? The book contract or the book? Did you pitch the idea before you went on your journey, or did you have faith that the book would find an interested publisher?

I hoped the trip would turn into a book, but I had no idea and tried hard to view the trip just as a time to explore, so that it could be a success regardless of what came out of it. Had I been a more established writer, I could probably have gotten a contract prior to traveling, but that wasn’t the case. And I wasn’t quite sure what I would find or if I’d really have enough material. I did the trip in July of ’05, and we actually didn’t pitch the book until March of ’06. It took me a while to get enough together for a proposal and figure out how to structure it. After that things went fairly quickly for the publishing world. So, it’s been a two-year process.

7. Have you kept in touch with the people you encountered during your trip?

Not so much. There are a few I hear from from time to time, and there are several I’ll definitely see again if I go back to England.

8. You oversee two blogs, own a house, actively pursue a demanding career, and are about to embark on a whirlwind series of publicity appearances. How do you find time for self-renewal, or a quiet series of moments to write?
I hope there’s a whirlwind of publicity! (Every writer’s dream!) For me I find that writing goes in phases. I love the marketing/publicity phase almost as much as the quiet of writing, and I have a hard time doing both at the same time. Living by myself still gives me a lot of quiet time, but I feel like I need to do a better job of finding space to write, pray, and just be, in the midst of the marketing craziness.

9. On your journey, did you glean any wonderful insights about Jane that are not in your book?
As I reread her books after coming home, I realized that there’s actually a lot of grace in Austen’s writing — the idea that we all fail miserably (to whatever degree) and generally are incredibly blessed (whatever form those blessings take). I think there’s a direct correlation there to what Jane felt about her own life. She knew her failures, and she knew (regardless of financial struggles or the fact that she didn’t marry) that she was really rich. She had nothing to do, but like Catherine in NA, “Forgive herself and be happier than ever.” That’s comforting to me.

10. Any other special memories?

I think that’s it… I hope readers can relate to it, and that it will inspire a few to take Austen pilgrimages of their own.

Thank you for answering my questions, Lori. I cannot tell you how much I am enjoying your book. (Yes, I still have to finish Part III, and will post the last of my thoughts just as your book becomes widely available this week).

Lori’s photos of her trip (in the order shown):

  1. Magdalene College, view of the bell tower
  2. Lori’s favorite spot at the bay window, Alton Abbey common room
  3. Chatsworth
  4. Fields around Steventon (actually, this one is between Ashe and Deane)

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Chairs to mend, old chairs to mend, Rush or cane bottomed chairs to mend, If I had the money that I could spend, I never would cry old chairs to mend, Rush or cane bottomed chairs to mend, chairs to mend old chairs to mend

Imagine London during Jane Austen’s time, a loud and brash city, filled with the stench of horse manure and sewage in the summer, and the smell of coal and wood smoke during the winter. Fog, thick as cotton, crept up from the Thames, snaking its tendrils and engulfing pedestrians and carriages alike. The rattle of wheels and horse’s hooves on cobblestones and the click click click of the pattens that protected a lady’s delicate slippers from mud were the ordinary sounds people were accustomed to. Above all this din, they could hear the cries of the street vendors.

Cries are phrases which, beginning in the 15th century, were called out in the streets by itinerant sellers of food and other commodities and by people offering their trades. They were especially prevalent in large towns and advertised for sale such diverse products and services as strawberries, fish, brooms, muffins, printed ballads and chimney sweeping. The criers were poor, and apparently loud and annoying. In 1711 Joseph Addison wrote an essay in The Spectator complaining of the noise at night and the loud, unpleasant manner in which the cries were uttered. “Milk” he writes “is generally sold in a note above high E, and in sounds so exceedingly shrill that it often sets our teeth an edge. (From Cries of London, see below).

Ripe Strawberries ripe, Ripe Strawberries ripe. Six-pence a pottle fine strawberries ripe strawberries…only six-pence a pottle… I have ripe Strawberries ripe, Ripe Strawberries ripe.

Who will buy a new love song? Only a ha’-penny a piece…Who will buy a hew love song? Only a ha’-penny a piece.

Find out more about London’s Street Vendors in these links:

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Rudolph Ackermann

Jane Austen fans know Rudolph Ackerman’s name through the exquisite hand colored illustrations and fashion plates that populate Regency blogs, websites, illustrated histories, and publications. A German who arrived in England in the late 18th century, Rudolph set up a print shop in the Strand, London in 1795, and began publishing The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashion and Politics in 1809. Before his death in 1834 he had published an astonishing 300 books.
Learn more about Mr. Ackermann from Margaret Culbertson from the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in Engines of Our Ingenuity. You can read the text or listen.

View of Oxford

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    Interested Reader,

    • I’ve also finished migrating all but one set of links to the blogrolls in the side bar. You will now find the following categories: Jane Austen Today (which leads to my old blog), British Links, Food & Cookery, and Jane Austen & Regency Links.

    About my old blog:

    I have decided to revamp my first Jane Austen blog and turn it into an entertainment, Jane fan, and media blog. From October on, it will be known as Jane Austen Today. Knowing that an excellent blog of this nature already exists in Austen Blog, mine will remain largely personal, featuring posts of my reviews of all books, movies, and objects about Jane Austen that find their way into my house, and my interviews with the authors, actors, and directors whose media reps have contacted me.

    As a reminder, my blogs are vanity blogs. They are personal “labors of love” and I do not generate an income from them. My opinions are not necessarily based on scholarly or learned observation. As Rebecca of Old Grey Pony so astutely implied: Your grade is at risk if you copy my material verbatim. Please do your own research, but feel free to access the original sources sitting in my top tabs. The words, thoughts, and ideas of Jane Austen’s contemporaries are guaranteed to impress your professors.

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    Elegant Readers,

    On Wednesday I posted Part One of my interview with Robin Swicord, the director of The Jane Austen Book Club, which was released in theaters this week. So far the reviews are good, and I cannot wait to see the movie. Here is the conclusion of my interview:

    Ms. Place: Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Amy Brenneman, Kathy Baker, Maggie Grace, Hugh Dancy, Lynne Redgrave, and Jimmy Smits! What was it like directing such a sterling cast? Does any story about working with this group stand out?

    Robin: Working with this cast was sheer pleasure. We kept an attitude of play throughout both rehearsal and the production, which began with our own lame attempt at a book club meeting (only Maggie Grace actually did the reading), and paid off especially in the eight large group scenes, when we had three cameras capturing performances in scenes (sometimes eight or ten minutes long) that were allowed to run from beginning to end without interruption. I chose actors who had theatre training as well as experience in television (a medium in which actors must work fast, with few takes) and in low-budget film – and I tried to get out of their way as much as possible. With such strong actors in every role, once we had established our understanding of the characters and the intention of every scene, all I had to do was be present near the camera, and occasionally step in to whisper a reminder. When I saw that we had captured what we were all working for, we moved on – usually after only two or sometimes three takes.

    Filming with three cameras simultaneously gave us wonderful flexibility — we could cover a take three different ways, or cover three different people, so performances tended to stay fresh. Occasionally I would begin a scene by sending away the crew, to allow the actors to play through the scene in private — rehearsing or just doing a walk-through of the lines, or trying out business with props. I called this impromptu play-time “getting our feet under us”. It made our First Assistant Director (who had to keep us on task) extremely anxious to see me “waste” shooting time with an on-set rehearsal. But I saw that it really paid off not only in the pace of shooting, but in the pace of the scene. Plus it was fun to send the “grown-ups” away and take over the set for a little playtime.

    On our budget –under $6 million – and with our schedule – only 30 days – we had little margin for error, and with a first time director, of course errors occurred! In our first week of shooting, Emily Blunt and Kevin Zegers filmed the scene in Prudie’s car, in which Prudie confides her secrets in Trey and Trey begins to kiss her. For speed we lit the scene for close-ups first, then changed the lighting for the wider two-shots. Because this scene had been both auditioned and rehearsed, I didn’t object to starting with the close-ups. I knew I could trust the actors, and we had a very ambitious day of shooting ahead of us. We shot the talking and kissing close-ups simultaneously to capture both performances at the same time. I saw that we had good performances in the first three takes, and we moved on to the two-shots. However, as we were filming the wider shots I realized that Emily and Kevin were just beginning to find the best of the scene. Their performances were becoming more nuanced, more real. In dismay I watched as Emily and Kevin just got better and better, their timing more poignant, the kiss more unexpected. I had a strong sense of how the scene would be cut together, and I knew that very little of this scene was likely to play in two-shot once we were editing the movie.

    When we finished the two-shots and prepared to move to a separate part of the scene, I told our D.P. John Toon that we had to re-do the close-ups. I think he and the First A.D. (who kept us on schedule) were appalled. “We don’t go backward”, Toony said, but I quietly insisted, and without further objection John Toon and his team quickly relit the car. As they worked, I got into the car with Emily and Kevin and asked them to please “stay in the scene” and not leave the car for a break. Instead of being annoyed at having to re-do the close-ups, both actors were grateful, because they had felt the difference too, and they were eager to do better. A few minutes later, we filmed the close-ups again. When I saw the actors’ performances in the editing room, I was so happy that we had gone back for more; and grateful for Toony’s tolerance of a newbie director; and especially grateful to Emily Blunt and Kevin Zegers for their commitment to giving the strongest performance.
    Clip from the movie when Maria Bello as Jocelyn meets Hugh Dancy as Grigg, the lone male in the Jane Austen Book Club

    Ms. Place: Did Karen Joy Fowler have a hand in writing the script? Or choosing the actors? Did you consult her at any time before or during the movie’s production?

    Robin: Karen wrote the novel; and several years later I wrote and directed the film. We didn’t talk before I began working on the adaptation. I loved delving into Karen’s novel. It’s actually comprised of six free-standing short stories, each with a character sketch of a member of the book club. In each short story Fowler tells the “back story” of a character – what had happened to each one in childhood, mostly – as well as describing the character’s unspoken thoughts during the book club meetings. These six stories are linked by a slender narrative thread. In adapting Karen’s truly enjoyable book, I made that narrative thread stronger, and slightly expanded upon Prudie and Grigg’s characters especially. Because our film is set very much in the maddening here and now (and not at all in the past), I couldn’t use much of the back stories Karen Joy Fowler wrote for Prudie and Grigg and Jocelyn – although between rehearsals the actors pored over the novel for clues to their characters! Soon after I finished my first draft of the screenplay, I went to Sacramento and Karen gave me a tour of the locations she had imagined when she was working on her novel. I photographed all around Sacramento and its outskirts, and referred to some of these images when we searched for Sacramento-like locations in Los Angeles County, where for budget reasons the film had to be shot. During pre-production I occasionally gave Karen updates on casting, but she didn’t really have a hand in any aspect of our filmmaking, except to give us a great tour of the Sacramento area, and write a novel that gave us a multitude of riches from which to work.

    Ms. Place: Concluding our short talk, what would you suggest for my readers? See the movie first, then read the book? Or vice versa?

    Robin: I don’t think it really matters whether you know the book first or even know Austen’s books beforehand – the film is obviously an adaptation of Karen’s terrific novel, but each stands alone as something to be enjoyed.

    Thank you so much for answering my questions. I wish you much success with this new film. If it is half as good as the novel, I will love it. I adore your choice of cast and I look forward to them watching them play these characters.

    Below are more thoughts from Robin Swicord (from the Sony Press Kit)

    When John Calley asked me to read Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, I was at work on an original screenplay about a dysfunctional family of Jane Austen scholars, which I planned to direct for Sony Pictures. I had spent years immersed in Austenalia, not only reading Austen’s novels repeatedly, but also absorbing her letters and juvenilia, and making my way through various academic treatises which explored Austen’s life and work from every imaginable angle. I joked to my Sony executive that I was on the way to making the only light Hollywood comedy ever to need a bibliography appended to the credits. However, in reading The Jane Austen Book Club, I found myself no longer in the company of sparring intellectuals. Here were ordinary people more like me; readers, seeking shelter and companionship in books. That contemporary readers have found refuge in Jane Austen’s well-ordered novels isn’t surprising, given what we’re seeking shelter from—congested traffic, ringing cell phones, squealing security wands, waiting rooms with blaring televisions. Recently I noticed that four of Austen’s six novels were for sale at the newsstand at the Seattle airport. Spend a couple of hours trapped in a terminal waiting for a flight that’s been delayed, and you’ll be only too happy to withdraw into a semi-rural English village, two centuries in the past. When you begin to love Austen, her world doesn’t seem that antiquated. Her characters worry about money, deal with embarrassing family members, cringe at social slights, and spend more time than they should hoping to fall in love, even when the local prospects don’t seem that promising. In short, her people are just like us—but without the commute and the twelve-to-fourteen hour workday.

    Swicord sums up the satisfying experience of directing her first feature with a quote from Jane Austen, the muse who was never far from the production’s heart: “In a letter to her niece, Austen speaks of her writing as “The little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” Making a movie is a world away from Jane metaphorically carving a piece of scrimshaw, but we’re really after the same thing: telling stories that reveal our lives and how we feel about love and friendship.”

    Scroll down to the next post to read part one of this two-part interview.

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    Elegant Readers,

    I’ve had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Robin Swicord, the director and screenwriter of the upcoming movie, The Jane Austen Book Club. Here, then, are her answers to my questions:

    Ms. Place: Jane Austen is probably more popular today than ever before. Did directing the movie (and writing the script) change your perception of her? How and why?

    Robin: For about ten years I had been immersed in all things Austen, in preparation for writing a comedy about a family of Jane Austen scholars – so I had already given a lot of thought to Jane Austen’s novels. So writing and directing TJABC didn’t change my perception so much as give me an opportunity to share with others my affection for her work and her wonderful characters.

    Ms. Place: What are some of the more obvious parallels between the plot of this movie and the novels Jane Austen wrote?

    Robin: Jocelyn is a matchmaker like Emma. Allegra is impulsive and unwise in love, like Marianne in Sense & Sensibility. Sylvia is the quiet foundation of her family, waiting and loving and trying not to hope – like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, Prudie alienates the man she loves, and then is given a second chance to repair the relationship. Bernadette, like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, finds humor in the foibles of others, and like Elizabeth, she worries about other people’s happiness. The lone man in the group, Grigg, embodies all of Austen’s worthy men in this very modern aspect – at first meeting, Grigg is misunderstood by the women of the club, and as in all of Austen’s novels, it takes a while for the woman he wants to see his good qualities and his readiness to love.

    Ms. Place: If by some miracle Jane Austen could advise the members of the Jane Austen Book Club, what do you think she would tell them? In particular Jocelyn and Sylvia?
    Robin: I can’t presume to speak in Austen’s voice (nor am I clever enough) but I’d imagine that Miss Austen might write Sylvia an email to spare her the embarrassment of receiving what might be unwelcome advice. Miss Austen would suggest that Jocelyn fix her own life before she tries to fix Sylvia’s. Austen would point out to Sylvia that it is a truth universally acknowledged that when your husband dumps your for a woman at the office, family and friends become even more important. And Miss Austen would say nothing at all to Prudie regarding her infatuation with Trey — but instead she’d write to her sister Cassandra that a newly married young woman of her acquaintance is rumored to have behaved shockingly in a parked car with a young man who is not her husband.

    I will post Part II of this interview over the weekend! To learn more about Robin, read her bio at Expert Spotlight :

    While in New York, she wrote “Last Days at the Dixie Girl Cafe,” for some fellow graduates of her alma mater who were setting up a theatre company. The play received good notices and eventually moved to off-Broadway. Swicord wrote the scripts for “Shag”, which starred Bridget Fonda, and “You Ruined My Life”, which was shown as a movie-of-the-week on CBS. She wrote and directed the recent film version of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon. Swicord and her husband, Nicholas Kazan, wrote the screenplay for “Matilda” based on the novel by Roald Dahl. Other screen credits include screenwriter and producer of “Practical Magic” and “The Perez Family” and director and screenwriter of “Red Coat”.

    The only bit of trivia I’d like to add to this sterling resume is that Robin’s father-in-law is the late Elia Kazan, director of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. Click on the following links to learn more about the movie and Robin.

    • For clips, book reviews, and first impressions about the movie, click on Austen blog.

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    During an era when thin cotton dresses, short sleeves, and low necklines were prevalent, the shawl became an important and ubiquitous necessity, especially in cool, draughty houses. Jane Austen mentions them throughout her novels and letters as a matter of course. Here are a few of Jane’s quotes and a sampling of shawls.

    Neoclassical hand embroidered white work shawl, 1810-1820

    They were entering the hall. Mr. Knightley’s eyes had preceded Miss Bates’s in a glance at Jane. From Frank Churchill’s face, where he thought he saw confusion suppressed or laughed away, he had involuntarily turned to hers; but she was indeed behind, and too busy with her shawl.

    Jane Austen, Emma

    Mr. Knightley thought he saw another collection of letters anxiously pushed towards her, and resolutely swept away by her unexamined. She was afterwards looking for her shawl–Frank Churchill was looking also–it was growing dusk, and the room was in confusion; and how they parted, Mr. Knightley could not tell.

    Jane Austen, Emma

    In Paragon we met Mrs Foley & Mrs Dowdeswell with her yellow shawl airing out—& at the bottom of Kinsdown Hill we met a Gentleman in a Buggy, who on minute examination turned out to be Dr Hall—& Dr Hall in such very deep mourning that either his Mother, his Wife, or himself must be dead.

    Jane Austen, Letter (1799-05-17)

    Spitalfields Shawl in the long, rectangular shape so popular during the Regency Period.

    Links to shawls of the era

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